Saturday, April 23, 2011

Breaking Down the Barriers

The difference we see in people before and after they do “the first trip” since the onset of their disability is incredible. It doesn’t matter the nature of the disability. It can be a SCI, stroke, Multiple Sclerosis, ALS or any one of the many reasons people can find themselves using a wheelchair.

When something seemingly tragic happens in our lives, it’s normal to feel loss and fear. For many people “traveling” is one more thing they feel they’ve lost the ability to enjoy.

The good news is, travel is almost always still possible.

Repeatedly, our team has worked with the details needed so that someone newly disabled can have an amazing vacation experience and, in the process, can take back some of their power. We love hearing their excitement after that first trip!

One of the most powerful testimonials for us happened a few years ago when Mary called our office. Their family consisted of her and her husband along a daughter and two sons, ranging from late teen to mid-20s. Two years earlier, her eldest son broke his neck in a car accident. Specifically, Jack had a C5/6 incomplete break.

Mary was reaching out to us. She found us on the internet and said it gave her some hope that a family vacation could still happen. She called to find out if cruising was something her family.... her whole family.... could still enjoy. As a mom and a 30 year travel industry veteran and a member of our Access Team, I could hear a lot in her voice. People travel for various reasons. For this family, they needed unification, healing and a chance to carve out a good “new normal.”

We discussed Jack’s disability needs and abilities. Then I wanted to know about her family’s interests. With some gentle probing, I learned about how incredibly active and sports-oriented this family used to be. Jack’s injury seemed to put a stop on that for everyone. My impression was that guilt over being able to be active for the rest of the family was holding everyone prisoner. Wow. I learned that the kids (including Jack) and father had C-cards for diving. Jack hadn’t even been in a pool since his accident. The mom wasn’t into diving, but loved water. The daughter enjoyed her Spanish class at school.

I presented an option that included rock climbing on the ship for the entire family with a staff experienced in working with paras. Plus everyone could swim on the ship because there was a hydraulic lift into one of the pools. The ship's "handicapped cabins" and public areas were very good for wheelers. I suggested an Eastern Caribbean itinerary because it’s the most accessible. Beach wheelchairs on Labadee meant that Jack could easily be on the beach with the family. In San Juan, the daughter could practice her Spanish. And the best part? We could arrange for DIVING in St. Thomas with an outfit run by someone we knew who was a Handicapped Scuba Association instructor. They booked the trip and we included a surprise for them onboard--- a prepaid family portrait.

After the trip, Mary called to tell me all about how fantastic their family vacation had been. She told me that she had been on the dive boat while her husband and kids were diving along with the HSA instructor. Her husband climbed back onto the boat with tears in his eyes and told her that he never thought he would see them all together enjoying the water again.

Mary then confided in me that she used to have many family photos hanging on the walls in their home. But because she couldn’t handle seeing photos of her son standing previous to his accident and didn’t want new photos of him in his wheelchair, she decided to take down all of the family’s photos to paint the house and never hung them up again. Mary said the trip changed all of that. As soon as they got home, they hung the new portrait along with the old family photos back on their walls.

And that is why Connie George Travel Associates has a team that specializes in accessible travel.

- Connie

P.S. Looking for more information regarding accessible cruising? Visit our Wheelchair Cruising website and have a specialist from our Access Team help you plan your next accessible cruise vacation!

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Are You Too Disabled to Fly? Knowledge Keeps You From Being Grounded!

Ever think you could be removed from an airplane because an airline decided you were “too disabled?” Well, you shouldn’t if flying in the U.S. or on a plane flying to and from the U.S. because you have rights under the Air Carrier Access Act. The ACAA is, what I sometimes refer to as, the “ADA of flying.”

There have been some recent
news stories regarding a US Airways employee told Johnnie Tuitel, a man with cerebral palsy who has thousands of air miles under his belt as he travels for work, that he had to disembark the plane prior to take-off. He was then advised that he was too disabled to fly. That they deemed him unable to assist himself or others so he would have to pay for a companion to join him.

You might be surprised to know that the airline was partially correct. They *can* say that you are not able, in their view, to assist yourself or others in an emergency and therefore need a companion.

It was the rest of the story in the articles I read which was missing.
In a 2008 blog, I wrote about the importance of “knowledge is power”, the “ACAA” and that you should know about a “CRO.”

I kept thinking, where’s the ACAA in this news story? Where’s the “who has the responsibility of the cost of the companion” part in the articles? Where’s the mention of the “Complaints Resolution Official” (“CRO”) who is the passenger advocate at the airport? The news stories I read made no mention that there are legal rights which seemed to have been ignored and unknown. Perhaps on both sides. With limited information, I offhand blame the employee and her supervisor, but let me reiterate…. I wasn’t there and I only know what’s been reported.

Just when I was getting very disillusioned about no one mentioning the ACAA, how a “required companion” really works and that a CRO should have been called, Candy Harrington from Emerging Horizons wrote a blog that filled in the blanks. So what should have happened? Let’s give the employee the benefit of the doubt on the judgment call just for the sake of knowing what should have happened next.

1) In hindsight, I wouldn’t have disembarked the plane. This passenger didn’t know why they were disembarking him and thought perhaps it was a family emergency.
2) ACAA says that, if a companion is required, the airline must provide the companion. The passenger cannot be required to pay for a second passenger.
3) I would not have budged without a CRO coming to hear what was transpiring and making a decision. A CRO is completely versed on the ACAA. Once called, that plane wouldn’t have gone anywhere until a CRO was on the issue either in person or by phone. S/he would have known and required that, if the airline felt this passenger (who flies often) was at risk by himself, the airline had to provide the companion.

I feel for the disembarked passenger. From what I’ve seen, his attitude is forgiving and that he wants the airline staffs to be educated so it doesn’t happen again. I want consumers to take it one step further. Read the ACAA. Know your rights. Don’t allow this to happen to you!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wheelchair River Cruising on American Spirit? Maybe.

For many people, river or “coastal waterway” cruising brings thoughts of peacefully floating by scenic coastlines and visiting historic cities. But for many others who have a disability, it also stirs thoughts of disappointment and frustration as most of these smaller--- and often older--- ships are not wheelchair accessible.

Built in 2005, American Spirit as well as most of the ships in the American Cruise Lines’ fleet are the newer of the small ships sailing these types of itineraries. For some people living with a physical disability, she represents the ability to now enjoy river sailing. For others, she will continue to be another river sailing disappointment. The success of a vacation is knowing the real answers so that you can make the best choice for you. Touring American Spirit recently, I didn’t break out my tape measure so I’m going to give you estimate measurements based on memory.

Straight off, I’ll tell you that this is not a vacation for a full-time wheelchair user. Here’s why:

  • Embarkation/debarkation:
  1. Short, narrow (around 20-24” wide) and very steep gangway that opened down onto two large blocks that made them “steps.” No way to push a manual wheelchair up it and no way for a powerchair or scooter to roll up it. Anyone unable to walk (with or without assistance) would have to be carried.

  • Accessible cabin:
  1. A lip into the accessible cabin’s shower stall of at least 3”.
  2. A roll-under sink that’s not truly very deep.
  3. A lip to the balcony that’s at least 3” and couldn’t be ramped on the balcony side of the doorway even if they ramped the cabin side.

  • Public rooms:
  1. There is about a 3” step up into the hallway leading to the Dining Salon.
  2. There’s no accessible public restroom.

I’m hopeful that American Cruise Lines will consider more thorough access for future ships. Frankly, even if they could just switch to a gangway that was wider and could lengthen when needed, and if they ramped the lip leading toward the restaurant, most full-time wheelchair users could be accommodated on this ship.

The good news is that this ship, unlike many older river boats, is accessible for those people who use a manual wheelchair “part-time” for distance as well as those who are somewhat ambulatory with the assistance of a walker, cane or crutches. I think there’s too much compromise needed for someone using a scooter part-time.

Here are some good features of American Spirit not always found on other river ships so let’s talk about why I think American Spirit can work for some people:

  • Accessible cabin:
  1. Wide doorway into cabin and bathroom
  2. Turning radius and storage space for a wheelchair
  3. Level access into the bathroom
  4. Grab bars in the toilet
  5. Toilet raiser is available
  6. I’ve been told that a tub transfer bench is available to transfer into the shower

  • Public rooms:
  1. There is an elevator that can access all four decks (something missing on most river boats and river barges)
  2. Other than the above mentioned step leading to the restaurant, there are no raised thresholds between rooms to trip over or have to pop a wheelchair over
  3. Corridors are wide and well lit
  4. Lounges and the restaurant have open space to easily navigate
  5. Staff is eager to help and to please the guests

To see more access photos of this ship, visit our American Spirit photo gallery. To make a reservation, speak with one of our Access Travel Team specialists who can answer your questions and assist with your details when helping you plan your trip.

~ Connie & the Access Travel Team

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New Rule Benefits Nudists

In a bold move, Spirit Airlines made an announcement today that makes them the first U.S. airline to begin charging for carry-on luggage as of August 1.

Though I’m guessing that a lot of consumers, just like some of the agents from our agency will disagree with me on this, I don’t necessarily think this is a “bad thing.” IF there are reasonable parameters. Let’s face it, flying is a miserable experience. And with the airlines’ apparent attitude toward luggage…. losing it, damaging it and charging to carry it in the cargo hold, they’ve created a situation whereby people are packing up everything short of the kitchen sink and hauling it into the cabin past staff who often aren’t enforcing the carry-on policies. I’m tired of getting banged with the luggage people are pushing, pulling and carrying down the narrow aisle of the plane and then trying to stuff it into the overhead above me. And frankly, I’m tired of trying to protect other passengers as I struggle with my own luggage which I’m trying to keep from checking in.

So what are the parameters I’d like to see in place?

First off, “no double dipping!” I have an issue with an airline that wants to charge people for luggage that’s going into the hold and into the cabin. Spirit’s plan is to collect from you either way. Unless you’re a business traveler who is flying roundtrip in one day or you are going on a nudist trip, this is going to be an added expense no matter how well you plan. I’d like to see an airline that only charges for extra baggage in the cabin. I believe it would be safer and more comfortable for most travelers if there is less luggage in the cabin. But Spirit plans to be a double-dipper.

Secondly, if an airline wants people to check their luggage in, let’s see a real commitment toward caring about luggage. Announce a plan and a promise toward better baggage handling. Keep reducing lost and damaged luggage instances.

Third, be sure that assistive devices are still permitted in the cabin and at no extra cost. Good news! This actually comes in under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). That’s why I didn’t make this my number one concern. ACAA
states, “Assistive devices brought into the cabin by an individual with a disability shall not count toward a limit on carry-on items.”

Next, an airline needs to be reasonable. Spirit Airlines has made what appear to be clear rules and reasonable exceptions. Each passenger can bring on one personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you so it can be no larger than 16” x 14” x 12”. Items which can be brought into the cabin for free in addition to assistive devices are: umbrella, coat, hat, camera, diaper bag, car seat (if you purchased a seat for a baby), stroller and also reading material and food for use during the flight.

If you wish to bring on one extra carry-on bag, you’ll be charged between $20-45 depending on whether you are one of their Fare Club members, pay in advance or pay at the gate. For more information regarding Spirit Airline’s new baggage policy, visit

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Get the Inside Scoop on Oasis of the Seas

I’ll be spending two nights on Royal Caribbean’s new Oasis of the Seas over Thanksgiving weekend. The purpose of the trip is to experience and learn all I can about this fantastic ship. The challenge is to do it in only 42 hour!. I will be particularly interested in the ship’s accessibility for guests who have disabilities and also how this ship can best suit groups.

Oasis of the Seas is opening her doors to thousands of travel agents and news media over a two week period. If you watch television, it would be hard to not have heard about “the world’s largest cruise ship.” Heck, this thing is sailing with a blimp, carousel, multiple “neighborhood” areas, a zip-line and other unique features as well as RCCL’s standard feature, a rock-climbing wall, and a FlowRider which has been popular on all of Royal Caribbean’s larger ships.

Most agents will be checking cabin categories, public areas, trying the food and seeing what the shows and entertainment are like so they can best guide their clients to the kind of vacation that many people dream about. But an “access travel specialist” has extra duties. We’re recording access (or lack thereof) details. We are measuring lengths, heights and widths, and takingWe love the door handles and the automatic door opener for this restroom on Mariner of the Sea. photos of things that make some people scratch their heads. “Regular” agents aren’t typically taking photos of toilets, lips in doorways and unisex bathroom signs. They also don’t lay on the floor to take a photo of a glass of water on a ramp to show the angle of the ramp in a cabin. Then again, typical travel agents don’t get as excited as our Access Travel Team specialists when we see a door handle instead of a doorknob on a public room door! Yep, we are a bit of an anomaly in the travel industry world.

My tape measure, camera, new Flip Video, battery charger and detailed deck plan are all ready to be packed. My list of questions and specifics to check on is growing. As well as the questions and details from our office, some clients have asked that I check specific items and members of Cruise Critic responded to my offer by listing some of their questions and concerns which have been added to my list.

Do you have an access detail you’d like for me to check on? No promises that I’ll get to it, but I’ll certainly try. Just respond back as a “comment” to this blog with your question before Thanksgiving and I’ll add it to my list.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Twist in the Road

I felt like I knew Sharon and Bob Hanlon from Bob’s book, “The Twist in the Road”, before actually meeting them at our St. James UCC book club earlier this week. This book became our summer reading book after our leader, Joanne Morris, met the local author.

Bob’s quite the character… which I mean in a very positive way. He’s a storyteller, he’s funny and he does dress like a cowboy. Which is cool because I happen to think Pennsylvania needs more cowboys. Cowboys have a certain presence that lets you know they’re around and they are brave and hardworking.

The other half of the duo is Bob’s wife, Sharon. Sharon is soft-spoken and her name’s not on the book cover so you mSharon Hanlon, Joanne Morris, Bob Hanlonight think she’s shy and living in Bob’s shadow. Ohhhh, not so! Sharon is a soft-spoken cowgirl with an equally great sense of humor, just minus the apparel. She brings meaning to “speak softly and carry a big stick” except that her “stick” is a cane.

Actually, Bob and Sharon both use canes. In our office, we would refer to them as “slow walkers”- travelers who don’t use wheelchairs, but need some extra consideration of the details for the most comfortable and successful vacation. The details for slow walkers can range from some extra advice to a bit of minor tweaking to some more involved arrangements.

Bob and Sharon have had major “twists” in their road. Bob woke up one day to a day like any other. He went out for a spin in a private plane he piloted and went to bed that night with a newly acquired spinal cord injury. After an issue with the plane making it a “lawn dart” (his words), he ended up with a T12 incomplete break. Years of surgeries, rods, tenacity, hard work and faith have passed. He walks using braces and a cane, but he’s walking.

Bob meets Sharon, they marry and life is good. His experience with the health care system enables them to disagree with a doctor which saves Sharon’s life over a blocked artery. A couple of years later, Sharon goes from feeling good one day to being in the hospital with only the ability to blink a day or two later. Again, experience helped push for the right people, a gut feeling and the right tests. Sharon was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). Her new road included pit stops at ventilators and plasma exchanges. Sharon still has residual effects that are part of her new road, but she's doing great.

This is a story, but not one of victimization or depression. I usually shy away from the adjectives of “brave” and “inspirational” because I feel they get overused. But this is a brave couple with an inspirational story filled with lessons in spinal cord injury, GBS, navigating and advocating in the health care system, goal-setting, humor and faith, but without feeling inundated, bored or depressed while reading it. It’s how to get through those twists in the road and thrive in spite of them. Their being brave and inspirational isn't due to what life threw at them. Instead, it’s because of how they used their resources to meet their goals. They’ve learned things the hard way and their ambition is to share what they’ve learned to benefit others.

The Twist in the Road is a quick read and I think you’ll enjoy it. After you read it, reply to this blog with your thoughts on it.

~ Connie

P.S. The MDA telethon is this weekend. If you are interested in learning about how MDA has been involved in treatment of GBS, click here.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Aloha & Happy Anniversary, Hawaii!

Happy 50th anniversary, Hawaii!

A lot has changed since President Dwight Eisenhower signed the “Hawaii Admission Act” in 1959. Man has walked on the moon and we have inventions such as microwave ovens, wireless TV remote controls, smoke detectors, MRIs and let’s not forget personal computers since that’s the technology helping this article to reach you!

And lots of other neat things have come about such as adaptive sports. I recently came across a website for AccesSurf Hawaii. I’ve never surfed and my idea of even snorkeling is to keep the tube doohickey’s opening above water so that I don’t have to figure out how to blow the water out of it. But hey, I don’t need to ice skate or be a gymnast to appreciate the talent and work that I watch on the Olympics.

This site intrigued me as we’ve had a few clients and their families who have been profoundly affected by adaptive sports during vacations. AccesSurf’s goal seems to be enabling people, locals and tourists, to be able to access the ocean to enjoy surfing, swimming, snorkeling and shoreline flotation despite any mental or physical disability. They currently do this on a limited budget and with the help of volunteers on Oahu on the first Saturday of every month. I know there are other places around the U.S. that do a “Day at the Beach”, but I’m not familiar with any that do it monthly.

As with any nonprofit organization, funds are always needed for current operations and for growth. The Omidyar Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation has presented a challenge. If AccesSurf can raise $25,000 by August 31, 2009, the Omidyars will match dollar-for-dollar all monies raised up to $25,000. It’s a lofty goal, but doable.

Aloha” is an amazing and beautiful Hawaiian word that means love, affection, peace and compassion. It’s also used in place of “hello” and “goodbye.” In the aloha spirit and to celebrate Hawaii’s anniversary, Connie George Travel Associates will make a $25 donation to AcceSurf Hawaii for every Hawaii cruise and escorted tour booked through our agency this month.

Visit their website at if you would like to learn more about their program or to make a direct donation. While there, be sure to click on their "Participants" page to see some fantastic photos.


~ Connie & the Access Travel Team